Animal-assisted therapy

The special bond between humans and animal dates back thousands of years. Today it’s often used to facilitate healing – both mentally and physically. Although the specific methods, settings, and types of animal may vary, the umbrella term for this therapeutic approach is animal-assisted therapy or AAT for short.

The therapeutic use of animals has been noted multiple times throughout history. It dates clear back to 9th century Belgium where farm animals were used as part of a therapy program for disabled individuals. Florence Nightingale, known for social reform and nursing wounded soldiers in the 1800s, recognized the healing impact of companion animals in her work. Freud noted that his psychiatric patients were more relaxed with a dog in the room, and had his pet dog present during sessions.

The term “pet therapy” (or pet-oriented psychotherapy) is attributed to Boris Levinson, a psychiatrist who specialized in treating children several decades ago. It was during his work with an autistic child when he noticed how much easier it was to communicate with the child whenever his pet dog, Jingles, was present. Children were more trusting and open with the dog in the room, making therapy sessions more effective. Dr. Levinson went on to do a significant amount of writing on the topic.

Today, animal-assisted therapy is widely used. Horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and even dolphins are the animals most commonly used. For example, equine-assisted therapy is frequently used in treatment programs for addictions and eating disorders. Dogs and cats are used by some psychotherapists to help their patients feel more relaxed and comfortable in therapy sessions.

Children and adults alike often feel more relaxed, trusting, optimistic, and responsive in the presence of a gentle animal. Unlike humans, animals don’t judge or criticize. Their presence can help soften the defenses of an anxious, distrusting, and / or emotionally blocked individual, making treatment more effective.

Benefits and Advantages of Animal-Assisted Therapy

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy are many. Some of them come directly from touching or stroking an animal. Others come from observing the animal, interacting with the animal, or watching how the treatment provider interacts with the animal. Positive physiological effects may include:

  • Decrease in blood pressure
  • Decrease in cortisol levels (cortisol is the “stress hormone”
  • Release of endorphins (mood enhancing chemicals in the brain)
  • Decrease in physical pain levels (due to the endorphins, which naturally suppress pain)
  • Release of oxytocin (the “love chemical”)
  • Enhance fine motor skills
  • Improve balance and coordination
  • Decrease risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Decreased reliance on medication

Emotional and psychological benefits may include:

  • Greater sense of calm
  • Boost in self-esteem
  • Increased insight
  • Decrease in feelings of loneliness and isolation (due at least in part to the release of oxytocin)
  • Decreased anger and hostility
  • Ability to be more open
  • Improve focus and attention
  • Increased ability to tap into and express emotions
  • Improved mood
  • Increase sense of optimism
  • Feeling loved unconditionally (perhaps for the first time)
  • Enhanced rapport with and trust in the therapist
  • Ability to identify with the animal (which can facilitate insight)
  • Increased sociability
  • Improved communication skills
  • Improved sense of responsibility
  • Increase in empathy and compassion
  • Reduce impulsivity
  • Repair damaged trust
  • Develop better problem-solving skills
  • Foster team-building skills (in a group setting)
  • Improved coping skills

Psychotherapy, addiction treatment, and other types of treatment often make some people feel very uncomfortable, guarded, and anxious – at least initially. Each of those is an obstacle to therapy. Having an animal present – and, especially, interacting directly with the animal – can help the patient let his or her guard down. This is very beneficial to the therapy process. Being more relaxed and calm also benefits anyone battling physical health issues.

One of the advantages of animal-assisted therapy is that it can be used with almost any type of therapy approach (e.g. cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, person-centered, etc.). Another advantage is that it can be used in a wide variety of treatment settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, private therapist offices, outpatient and residential treatment programs. (The exception to this, of course, is when large animals (e.g. horses, dolphins) are involved, which require specific types of settings in order to accommodate the animals).

Disadvantages of Animal-Assisted Therapy

In most cases, the benefits of animal-assisted therapy far outweigh any potential negatives. However, there are several things that must be taken into consideration before participating in animal-assisted therapy.

  • The patient’s comfort level with animals. Unfortunately, some people are scared of animals – or at least specific animals, such as horses or dogs. Some individuals strongly dislike animals for one reason or another. Treatment can quickly backfire if the patient fits in either of these categories. It’s important that the use of an animal as part of the therapy process is agreeable to the patient before starting. Attempting to force it on an unwitting patient could be disastrous. Not only would it likely destroy trust; it could also undermine any progress that had already been made in treatment.
  • Whether or not the patient is appropriate for animal-assisted therapy. For example, individuals who are severely mentally ill – particularly those who are actively psychotic, actively abusing alcohol or drugs, hostile, or have a history of abusing animals (e.g. an adolescent with a history of conduct disorder or an adult with antisocial personality disorder) – are not good candidates. It’s also imperative that patients and clients be monitored closely when interacting with the animal. This not only ensures the animal’s safety, but also the safety of the individual.
  • Medical issues. Individuals with a compromised immune system – whether due to an illness, treatment (e.g. radiation), or medication – may not be an appropriate candidate for animal-assisted therapy.
  • Allergies to animals. Allergies need to be taken into consideration when it comes to animal-assisted therapy. For example, allergies to cats and / or dogs are quite common. A mild interaction may be tolerable, but it’s wise to discuss any potential allergy issues before starting animal-assisted therapy.

Disorders and Issues Animal-Assisted Therapy is Used to Treat or Help

The list of potential psychiatric disorders, life challenges, and health issues that can benefit from animal-assisted therapy is extensive. Considering the calming effect of a gentle, friendly, animal, almost all physical and emotional issues can benefit. They include:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Loneliness and isolation (e.g. for individuals in nursing homes, especially if they used to have pets)
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Developmental disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Individuals with poor social skills
  • Dementia
  • ADHD
  • Addiction / relapse prevention
  • Eating disorders
  • Healing from trauma
  • Chronic pain
  • Behavioral problems
  • Serious health issues
  • Unresolved grief

Animal-assisted therapy can also help medical patients recover more quickly from serious health issues, including cancer and heart disease.

Animal-assisted therapy is typically used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, such as psychotherapy or drug and alcohol rehab. The goal is to enhance and facilitate the current treatment.   Sometimes a furry “co-therapist” is all it takes to push through an impasse in therapy, gain deeper insight, facilitate healing, or to teach an invaluable life lesson.

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